Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (often called “Mahatma,” or “great soul”), the Indian nationalist and advocate of non-violence, was born in Porbandar to the local chief minister and a mother who was an active disciple of Vaishnavism, the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu. Gandhi’s religious upbringing emphasized principles of ahimsa (non-injury to living beings), fasting, self-purification, and nonviolence; these themes would figure prominently in his political philosophy. His academic performance in Indian schools was mediocre; however, after a rebellious adolescence, Gandhi committed himself to a program of passionate self-improvement. In 1888, he sailed to England to study law at the Inner Temple, but found himself more involved in adjusting to Western culture. His vegetarianism, at first a source of embarrassment, became an opportunity to practice his social influence: he joined the London Vegetarian Society, where he was introduced to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.
In 1891, he returned to India to discover that, because he found himself unable to speak in the courtroom and thus was left merely to prepare legal documents, law was not a lucrative career for him in India. Subsequently, in 1893, he took a job for an Indian firm in South Africa; the prejudices against Indians he encountered there persuaded him to remain to help fight discrimination. Almost overnight he was transformed into a skilled politician. He established spiritual communities (ashrams), the Natal Indian Congress, and a weekly newspaper, the Indian Opinion. In 1906, he staged his first nonviolent resistance campaign based on his technique of satyagraha (“the Force which is born of Truth and Love, or nonviolence”), which he derived from the works of Thoreau, Tolstoy, the Hindu scriptures, and the New Testament. Gandhi and his followers in South Africa were often threatened and imprisoned.
In 1915, Gandhi returned to India, where he began to campaign and fast for Indians of the lowest castes and for “untouchables,” whom he renamed Harijan, “children of God.” Upon the passing of the Rowlatt Act in 1919, an infringement on Indian civil liberties, he planned an all-India satyagraha campaign, but the event backfired when some of the protesters resorted to violence. Another campaign in 1920 boycotted the British cloth industry; he was subsequently arrested for sedition in 1922 and spent two years in prison. (During his lifetime, he would spend a total of 2,338 days in jail.) Upon his release, he was elected president of the Indian National Congress. He led several social movements, his “constructive program,” which included women’s rights, education, industry, personal hygiene, and Hindu-Muslim unity. However, the issue of whether there should be a separate electorate for Dalits, an alternative term for “untouchables,” divided him from the activist Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar regarded as a hero of the casteless. In 1933, Gandhi fasted for 21 days over issues concerning untouchables. In 1942, he led a satyagraha to demand the withdrawal of British forces from India; the British reacted sharply and imprisoned the leadership of the Congress. On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan were declared independent, but Gandhi was deeply disappointed by this lack of unity at the moment of freedom. Renewed riots between Hindus and Muslims led Gandhi to a final fast. In 1948, Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi by a Hindu fanatic while traveling to his evening prayer meeting.
Gandhi’s collected works—autobiography, letters, editorials, and speeches—fill 100 volumes. In his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927), Gandhi recounts his consideration of suicide during his period of youthful rebellion. His writings on satyagraha often refer to conditions under which it is permissible to lay down one’s own life for a noble cause. In the pamphlet “Indian Home Rule” (1909), he uses the dialogue of a hypothetical editor and reader to explain the attitudes of a “passive resister” toward death; in rejecting the ancient tradition of self-immolation that was practiced by Buddhist monks in Vietnam (q.v., Thich Nhat Hanh) in Harijan (1940), he insists that that was mere passive resistance, not the active, engaged satyagraha that he supported. Non-Violence in Peace and War (1945) illuminates his belief in the importance of learning the “art of dying.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi, “Indian Home Rule,” in The Gandhi Reader: A Source Book of his Life and Writings, ed. Homer A. Jack (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1956; London: Dennis Dobson, 1958), pp. 112, 114-16; An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, tr. Mahadev Desai (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), pp. 25-28; excerpts from Gandhi on Non-Violence; Selected Texts from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s Non-Violence in Peace and War, ed. Thomas Merton (New York: New Directions Books, 1964, 1965), selections from pp. 39, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48, 52, 55, 60, 61, 62, 64, 73, 85, 86. Material in introduction also from Christine Everaert.
from INDIAN HOME RULE
EDITOR: Passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering; it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do a thing that is repugnant to my conscience, I use soul-force. For instance, the Government of the day has passed a law which is applicable to me. I do not like it. If by using violence I force the Government to repeal the law, I an employing what may be termed body-force. If I do not obey the law and accept the penalty for its breach, I use soul-force. It involves sacrifice of self.
Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others. Moreover, if this kind of force is used in a cause that is unjust, only the person using it suffers. He does not make others suffer for his mistakes. Men have before now done many things which were subsequently found to have been wrong. No man can claim that he is absolutely in the right or that a particular thing is wrong because he thinks so, but it is wrong for him so long as that is his deliberate judgment. It is therefore meet that he should not do that which he knows to be wrong, and suffer the consequence whatever it may be. This is the key to the use of soul-force. . .
READER: From what you say I deduce that passive resistance is a splendid weapon of the weak, but that when they are strong they may take up arms.
EDITOR: This is a gross ignorance. Passive resistance, that is, soul-force, is matchless. It is superior to the force of arms. How, then, can it be considered only a weapon of the weak? Physical-force men are strangers to the courage that is requisite in a passive resister. Do you believe that a coward can ever disobey a law that he dislikes? Extremists are considered to be advocates of brute force. Why do they, then, talk about obeying laws? I do not blame them. They can say nothing else. When they succeed in driving out the English and they themselves become governors, they will want you and me to obey their laws. And that is a fitting thing for their constitution. But a passive resister will say he will not obey a law that is against his conscience, even though he may be blown to pieces at the mouth of a cannon.
What do you think? Wherein is courage required—in blowing others to pieces from behind a cannon, or with a smiling face to approach a cannon and be blown to pieces? Who is the true warrior—he who keeps death always as a bosom-friend, or he who controls the death of others? Believe me that a man devoid of courage and manhood can never be a passive resister.
This, however, I will admit: that even a man weak in body is capable of offering this resistance. One man can offer it just as well as millions. Both men and women can indulge in it. It does not require the training of an army; it needs no jiu-jitsu. Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy.
Passive resistance is an all-sided sword, it can be used anyhow; it blesses him who uses it and him against whom if is used. Without drawing a drop of blood it produces far-reaching results. It never rusts and cannot be stolen. Competition between passive resisters does not exhaust. The sword of passive resistance does not require a scabbard. It is strange indeed that you should consider such a weapon to be a weapon merely of the weak. . . .
READER: From what you say, then, it would appear that it is not a small thing to become a passive resister, and, if that is so, I should like you to explain how a man may become one.
EDITOR: To become a passive resister is easy enough but it is also equally difficult. I have known a lad of fourteen years become a passive resister; I have known also sick people do likewise; and I have also known physically strong and otherwise happy people unable to take up passive resistance. After a great deal of experience it seems to me that those who want to become passive resisters for the service of the country have to observe perfect chastity, adopt poverty, follow truth, and cultivate fearlessness.
Chastity is one of the greatest disciplines without which the mind cannot attain requisite firmness. A man who is unchaste loses stamina, becomes emasculated and cowardly. He whose mind is given over to animal passions is not capable of any great effort. . . .
Just as there is necessity for chastity, so is there for poverty. Pecuniary ambition and passive resistance cannot go well together. Those who have money are not expected to throw it away, but they are expected to be indifferent about it. They must be prepared to lose every penny rather than give up passive resistance.
Passive resistance has been described in the course of our discussion as truth-force. Truth, therefore, has necessarily to be followed and that at any cost. In this connection, aca
demic questions such as whether a man may not lie in order to save a life, etc., arise, but these questions occur only to those who wish to justify lying. Those who want to follow truth every time are not placed in such a quandary; and if they are, they are still saved from a false position.
Passive resistance cannot proceed a step without fearlessness. Those alone can follow the path of passive resistance who are free from fear, whether as to their possessions, false honor, their relatives, the government, bodily injuries or death.
from AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE STORY OF MY EXPERIMENT WITH TRUTH
Stealing and Atonement
I have still to relate some of my failings during this meat-eating period and also previous to it, which date from before my marriage or soon after.
A relative and I became fond of smoking. Not that we saw any good in smoking, or were enamoured of the smell of a cigarette. We simply imagined a sort of pleasure in emitting clouds of smoke from our mouths. My uncle had the habit, and when we saw him smoking, we thought we should copy his example. But we had no money. So we began pilfering stumps of cigarettes thrown away by my uncle.
The stumps, however, were not always available, and could not emit much smoke either. So we began to steal coppers from the servant’s pocket money in order to purchase Indian cigarettes. But the question was where to keep them. We could not of course smoke in the presence of elders. We managed somehow for a few weeks on these stolen coppers. In the meantime we heard that the stalks of a certain plant were porous and could be smoked like cigarettes. We got them and began this kind of smoking.
But we were far from being satisfied with such things as these. Our want of independence began to smart. It was unbearable that we should be unable to do anything without the elders’ permission. At last, in sheer disgust, we decided to commit suicide!
But how were we to do it? From where were we to get the poison? We heard that Dhatura seeds were an effective poison. Off we went to the jungle in search of these seeds, and got them. Evening was thought to be the auspicious hour. We went to Kedarji Mandir, put ghee in the temple-lamp, had the darshan and then looked for a lonely corner. But our courage failed us. Supposing we were not instantly killed? And what was the good of killing ourselves? Why not rather put up with the lack of independence? But we swallowed two or three seeds nevertheless. We dared not take more. Both of us fought shy of death, and decided to go to Ramji Mandir to compose ourselves, and to dismiss the thought of suicide.
I realized that it was not as easy to commit suicide as to contemplate it. And since then, whenever I have heard of someone threatening to commit suicide, it has had little or no effect on me.
The thought of suicide ultimately resulted in both of us bidding good-bye to the habit of smoking stumps of cigarettes and of stealing the servant’s coppers for the purpose of smoking.
from NON-VIOLENCE IN PEACE AND WAR
[In non-violence] the bravery consists in dying, not in killing.
Those who die unresistingly are likely to still the fury of violence by their wholly innocent sacrifice.
He who meets death without striking a blow fulfills his duty cent per cent. The result is in God’s hands.
A satyagrahi is dead to his body even before his enemy attempts to kill him, i.e., he is free from attachment to his body and only lives in the victory of his soul. Therefore when he is already thus dead, why should he yearn to kill anyone? To die in the act of killing is in essence to die defeated.
Just as one must learn the art of killing in the training for violence, so one must learn the art of dying in the training for non-violence.
The votary of non-violence has to cultivate his capacity for sacrifice of the highest type in order to be free from fear. . . . He who has not overcome all fear cannot practice ahimsa to perfection. The votary of ahimsa has only one fear, that is of God. He who seeks refuge in God ought to have a glimpse of the Atman [the transcendent self] that transcends the body; and the moment one has glimpsed the imperishable Atman one sheds the love of the perishable body. . . . Violence is needed for the protection of things external; non-violence is needed for the protection of the Atman, for the protection of one’s honor.
There is a natural prejudice against fasting as part of a political struggle. . . . It is considered a vulgar interpolation in politics by the ordinary politician, though it has always been resorted to by prisoners. . . . My own fasts have always been strictly according to the laws of satyagraha. . . . I have been driven to the conclusion that fasting unto death is an integral part of the satyagraha program, and it is the greatest and most effective weapon in its armory under giver circumstances. Not everyone is qualified for undertaking it without a proper course of training.
A satyagrahi must always be ready to die with a smile on his face, without retaliation and without rancor in his heart. Some people have come to have a wrong notion that satyagraha means only jail-going, perhaps facing blows, and nothing more. Such satyagraha cannot bring independence. To win independence you have to learn the art of dying without killing.
A satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have been explored and have failed.
To lay down one’s life for what one considers to be right is the very core of satyagraha.
A satyagrahi may never run away from danger, irrespective of whether he is alone or in the company of many. He will have fully performed his duty if he dies fighting.
You are no satyagrahis if you remain silent or passive spectators while your enemy is being done to death. You must protect him even at the cost of your own life.
The art of dying for a satyagrahi consists in facing death cheerfully in the performance of one’s duty.
Ahimsa is one of the world’s great principles which no force on earth can wipe out. Thousands like myself may die in trying to vindicate the ideal, but ahimsa will never die. And the gospel of ahimsa can be spread only through believers dying for the cause.
Non-violence is the only thing the atom bomb cannot destroy. . . . Unless now the world adopts non-violence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind.
Murder can never be avenged by either murder or taking compensation. The only way to avenge murder is to offer oneself as a willing sacrifice, with no desire for retaliation.
A non-violent man or woman will and should die without retaliation, anger or malice, in self-defense or in defending the honor of his women folk. This is the highest form of bravery. If an individual or group of people are unable or unwilling to follow this great law of life, retaliation or resistance unto death is the second best, though a long way off from the first. Cowardice is impotence worse than violence. The coward desires revenge but being afraid to die, he looks to others, maybe to the government of the day, to do the work of defense for him. A coward is less than a man. He does not deserve to be a member of a society of men and women.
[Jesus—] a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.
No man, if he is pure, has anything more precious to give than his life.